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An ABC: Some Tidbits
The title of this poem in the sixteen surviving
manuscripts is "La priere de Nostre Dame" (The prayer
of our Lady). Critics more frequently refer to it as Chaucer's
ABC. The poem appears to be Chaucer's close translation
of a prayer that first appeared in the French allegorical poem
called La Pelerinaige de la vie humaine ("The Pilgrimage
of Human Life") from about 1330. Chaucer's ABC survives
in the following manuscripts:
Bodley 638 Bodleian Library
Coventry MS (Accession 325), City Record
Fairfax 16, Bodleian Library
Gg. 4. 27, Cambridge University Library
Harley 2251, British Library
Harley 7578, British Library
Pepys 2006, Magdalene College, Cambridge,
in two copies with only the first sixty lines
Additional MS 36983, British Library (formerly
part of the Bedford Collection)
Ff.5.30, Cambridge University Library
Hunter 239, Glasgow University Library
G.21, St. John's College, Cambridge
Laud Misc 740, Bodleian Library
Melbourne MS, State Library of Victoria
Arc. L. 40.2/E.44, Sion College, London
It also survives in Speght's 1602 edition of Chaucer's
works (STC 5080-81), and the first sixteen lines of the text
also survive in Cosin MS. V.I.9 of Durham University Library.
According to the printed Speght edition, Chaucer's
poem was composed "at the request of Blanche, Duchesse
of Lancaster, as a praier for her privat use." If this
statement is true, as critic John Fisher notes, the ABC must
be one of Chaucer's earliest poems, one written even before
the The Book of the Duchess.
The form of the poem is an acrostic,
specifically the subgenre known as an abecedarian poem. Each
stanza begins with a letter of the medieval Latin alphabet,
each appearing in sequence, progressing from A to the letter
Z. Each stanza evokes a different symbol over the progression
of the poem, but Chaucer omits much of the imagery dealing most
explicitly with Christ and the virgin. In effect, Chaucer blurs
the line between a sensual courtly love poem praising the qualities
of an attractive woman and a devout Marian poem praising the
holy qualities of the Virgin Mary. The mixture of Marian and
courtly language was a feature in many medieval poems. In this
case, the complaintes d'amour were Chaucer's principle
models--especially Machaut, Deschamps, and Froissart.
Biblical antecedents for such a model of poetry
appear in Psalm 118 in the Douay-Rheims numbering of the Bible.
This psalm is itself an abecedarian acrostic, with each stanza
headed by one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, such as
Alph, Beth, Gimel, and so on. Chaucer would not have known the
original Hebrew, of course, but he almost certainly was familiar
with some Vulgate translations in medieval Latin.
Note especially the legal terminology: "greevous
accioun" in line 20, "verrey right" in line 21,
"general acquitaunce" in line 60, and so on. Even
the last judgment becomes "the grete assyse" in line
36, and God the "hye justyse" (638) who redeems the
accused by using his blood as lawyer's ink when he "wrot
the bille / Upon the crois" (638). These lines and others
are possibly reminiscent of the legal training Chaucer might
have received at the Inns of Court or Oxford during his law
school days. (On the other hand, theological texts dealing with
soteriology or salvation often make use of similarly legalistic
diction as well).
here to read the text of the poem.